Caterer Harbour & Jones maintains its competitive edge partly by sourcing one-third of its produce through specialist suppliers. To emphasise the point, some of its chefs were taken on a visit to free-range farms in East Anglia. Ben Walker went with them
How can a business and industry contract caterer really stand out from the competition? After all, when it comes to buying in ingredients for contracts such as Harbour & Jones's (H&J) at Sky television, with 7,000 workers on site, there is a limit to the number of suppliers who can deal in such volumes. Surely, no matter who holds the contract, the ingredients coming into unit are going to be more or less the same.
Nathan Jones recognises this. He admits that two-thirds of H&J's supplies, especially dry goods, come from the well-known giants, just like his competitors. He adds that H&J has two recommended suppliers per commodity, ensuring that competition keeps them on their toes.
But he reckons it's the remaining one-third of supplies that make H&J stand out. It works with entrepreneurial and ethical firms that have a story to tell. These include Union Coffee Roasters from east London, which trades directly with farms and co-operatives across the world; fishmongers Matthew Stevens & Sons, which buys from day boats landing in St Ives, Cornwall; and Allan Reeder, a west London company that sources dairy products from small South of England farms.
But in the high-volume, tight-margin world of contract catering, isn't the higher cost that such outfits demand an issue? Patrick Harbour's answer is revealing: "Take a chicken supreme, for example - you can buy one from a major supplier for 80p or from a local butcher for £1. But when you cook them side by side the mass-produced one will shrink because of its high water content. So, in terms of weight, the local butcher's supreme will be better value for money."
H&J is continually developing new relationships with food producers. It was to this end that I joined a group of H&J chefs on a visit to a Suffolk pig farm and a Norfolk turkey farm.
Along for the ride were chefs Stuart Clarke from law firm Lewis Silkin; Nathan Lakeman and David Steel from Sky; Mark Nichols from the British Bankers Association; Richard Haye from Trowers & Hamlins; Veronica Kuhn from Opodo; and Tanya Hillier from Chrysalis.
The idea was to have an interesting and fun day out in the countryside and learn about free-range rearing. But not just that, because as well as Jones and food development director Mark Parfait, also on board the minibus was Kevin Lyons, managing director of B Trayhurn Meats, a key H&J supplier. Lyons heads a £1.25m-turnover business that also supplies to Principal Catering Consultants and Artizian. As an accredited butcher of traditional breeds, Lyons was aiming to forge links with the farmers.
First stop was the home of Blythburgh free-range pork. Farmer Jimmy Butler explained how his farm rears 800 pigs a week. Nearly half are sold to Waitrose and the other half marketed through his own-brand label, ending up in stores such as Selfridges and restaurants like the Fat Duck.
"We have a story to tell, because we control the pigs from conception to consumption," he says. "One ejaculate is enough to impregnate 30 sows. The sperm, which is good for four days, is inserted through the cervix and into the uterus with a catheter. A typical litter produces 10 piglets."
We saw the tiny pink babies resting on hay inside one of the metal shelters that each mother has as well as free ground to walk around. Once born, a pig grows 100 times in weight within just six months - its age at slaughter. This is four to five weeks longer than non-free-range pigs, which are raised indoors on concrete.
At Blythburgh the pigs produce a long loin, large ham and fine shoulder with up to 12mm of back fat. Butler says that less than 9mm of back fat will make the meat too dry.
Our next call was Rookery Farm, Thuxton, home of Peele's Norfolk Black turkeys. James Graham is the great-grandson of Ernest Peele, who started rearing Norfolk Blacks in 1880. He told us that his turkeys mate naturally and are fed on a mix of wheat, barley, oats and beans grown on the farm.
The Norfolk Black has a high oil content, which makes it cook well, a fine, white skin and compact breast with a long, straight breast bone. Graham sells up to 3,000 birds per Christmas, but is not geared up for supermarket trade because the birds are smaller than the average family turkey.
The turkeys are killed by hand in a dark room by dislocating the neck. Since turkeys have very bad eyesight, this is far more humane than the mass production method, where turkeys are hooked on to shackles, moved along a conveyor, stunned first and then have their throats slit.
Graham is also proud of the quality of his turkeys' feathers, which are sold for use as fishing flies, feather dusters and arrows. They even made an appearance in the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
A few days after our trip Lyons tells me that both producers are keen to do business with him. He is confident that after a presentation of information gleaned from our trip H&J's clients will be interested in the products. "Most companies want full traceability and locally sourced meat," he says. "With Christmas on the way I definitely think something will come of it."
The trip had another purpose, too: strengthening the friendship between caterer and supplier. "Normally, when we see the chefs they're under pressure, so it was lovely to relax with them," adds Lyons.
He has plenty to look forward to. Sharing the same passion for rugby as Jones, the pair will hop over to Dublin to catch Ireland versus South Africa next week. And, for the New Year, Lyons is already planning an H&J trip to a traditional breed farm of cows, sheep and pigs in Ludlow, Shropshire.
Harbour & Jones
- www.harbourandjones.com Upmarket central London B&I caterer
- Start-up costs £15,000
- Key contracts Sky, Opodo, Lewis Silkin, British Bankers Association, ANZ Investment Bank
- Staff 190
- Turnover 2005 £3.6m
- Projected turnover 2006 £6m
Ask an expert
Clients are demanding ethically sourced products, and the smaller caterers are ahead of the game, says Chris Stern, managing director of Stern Consultancy…
The big caterers are doing it, too. Compass's annual report is full of references to sustainability, but they have a bigger beast to tame - it's more difficult for them to achieve in a short space of time.
A lot of clients are asking me, "How much say does the chef get in purchasing?" The big boys tend to be a bit firmer in insisting on preferred suppliers. But because the smaller contractors are giving the purchasing discounts back, having a larger number of suppliers makes no difference to them, apart from the increase in invoices and companies to audit.
The large suppliers, such as Brakes and 3663, have reacted as well. Their product lines are far broader now. Ethical sourcing and corporate social responsibility are not just flavours of the month. They are here to stay and are growing in importance.